When I was a magazine publisher in my 30s, I was known in my company as a bit of a hyperactive manager. An aim, fire, ready kind of person. If I had an idea, I acted on it almost immediately. No one could say I was afraid to swing at pitches. Waiting for the right pitch…not so much.
My boss, the president of the company, came into my office one day with a tennis ball. He sat down, took a deep breath, and put his feet up on my desk. Then he proceeded to bounce the tennis ball off my office wall. He didn’t say anything. After a while he said, “Mitch, sometimes the best thing you can do with your time is bounce a tennis ball off your wall.”
He told me that story about 20 years ago. I’ve told it at least 100 times to people I’ve mentored, and to clients. I use it when I see leaders making snap decisions, or when they’re in hyper-mode and need to chill out, or when they feel that if they’re not in motion every second, doing something, they’re doing it wrong.
Stories are a memorable shortcut to learning. A story takes less time to tell than a lecture or a bunch of tips and advice. And stories have many times the impact. People who use stories effectively inspire us. Stories allow the listener to come to conclusions themselves on the meaning of the story and its relevance to them. Because of this, stories empower people to take actions of their own design, rather than following someone else’s roadmap.
But stories aren't always immediately available to us. How many times have you said to yourself, “I wish I had a relevant story to tell in a teachable moment.”
As a leader, you coach your team daily on how to be stronger in their roles and achieve at a higher level. I know through coaching that the power of a memorable story would help you solidify the lessons you wish to impart so much more than advice and direction that sounds like a how-to manual. But it’s not always easy to pluck a story in the moment, right when you need it. Can you do anything about this?
I think you can. Here’s a suggestion:
1. Make a Top 10 Situations List: As a leader, you have conversations with colleagues about topics ranging from interpersonal disputes between team members, to handling difficult client situations, to making a sale when there are serious objections, to whether and who to hire. In all likelihood, 80 percent or more of your discussions with team members revolve around a core set of subjects. If you make a list of the kinds of topics and issues you address with your people and get to more than about 10-20, send me your list and I'll send you a valuable prize.
2. Gather Up Your 10 Best Stories: As a separate exercise, write down the stories from your career and life and the lessons you learned from each one.
3. Match the Stories to the Situations. You╒ll notice that certain stories are perfect analogies, metaphors and allegories for the most common situations in which you find yourselves and your teammates.
I hope you'll take a moment and bounce a tennis ball off your office wall, metaphorically or literally, and consider how you can become a more effective leader through storytelling. I invite you to respond with your favorite story and how you use it.